Proper 19, Year C, 2016

One of the images that burns in my mind when I think about September 11th, 2001 are the walls covered in posters of people who were missing. So many people died at once, and the crime scenes were so chaotic, that it was sometimes weeks before people confirmed whether their loved ones were dead or alive.   Walls in New York were covered in handmade posters with the faces of people who were lost. Their families did everything they could to find the people they loved so much. Some were successful right away—finding their loved ones in a hospital, and some kept on looking, but never stopped until they knew for sure what had happened.

That image has stayed with me this week, because our Gospel text is full of images of people looking, searching, for something precious. Jesus is surrounded by tax collectors and “sinners” who have heard about him and are fascinating by the things Jesus is saying about God. The Pharisees are horrified that someone who claims to be delivering messages from God is surrounding himself with tax collectors, who take advantage of the people of God on behalf of the Roman Empire and by sinners, who you know, do sinful stuff.

Jesus responds by telling the story of the shepherd, who has lost one sheep, leaves the other 99 sheep and searches until he can bring the lost sheep back to safety. He goes on to tell a story about a woman who loses a coin and turns her whole house upside down to find it. He then tells the story of the prodigal son, which the lectionary saves for another day.

There is no one so lost that they are outside the bounds of God’s grace. A couple of weeks ago, when we did the backpack blessing, I told the children that with God, they get infinite do-overs. A couple parents laughed/shot me dirty looks, because this is not particularly helpful ammunition to give a grumpy seven year old. I want to be clear that it is God who gives the do-overs, not people. No human being is willing to give us infinite do-overs. Our teachers won’t give us infinite do-overs, our siblings won’t give us infinite do-overs, even the most loving parent eventually has to draw a line. It’s not good for human beings to give us infinite do-overs. Sometimes people drawing the line on our destructive behavior is what finally gets us to make better choices.

But even if we have alienated every human being in our life, even if our parents have cut us off, God is still patiently waiting for us and as soon as we want to, will help us start a new life in God. In fact, if we are to believe Jesus’ parables, God isn’t just patiently waiting, God is turning over couch cushions looking for us. God is looking behind every hedge and under every rock. God isn’t sitting around waiting for us to get all our answers straight. God isn’t waiting for us to pull ourselves together. God is looking for us right now. Exactly the way we are. He longs for us.

There is a story out of Denmark, reported by Hanna Rosin of the NPR Podcast Invisiblia, that made me think of these parables.  This is the story of those who were lost, and how a community found them again.

One day, in the Danish town of Aarhus, police got a frantic call from parents whose teenage son had gone missing. While they started to look into the case, they got another call. And then another. In all, it turned out dozens of teenagers and young adults had disappeared. The police investigated and found that these young people had been lured by ISIS to Syria, along with thousands of other European young adults. Rather than recruit directly through mosques, ISIS recruited through social media and peer to peer recruiting. Some parents had no idea their children were being radicalized until the day their children disappeared.

Now, in the rest of Europe, police reaction to this recruiting was to get even tougher on terrorism. Countries forbid travel to Syria, threatened to take away passports, declared those who had left enemies of the state. None of this seemed to work. Young Muslim people felt so alienated that the call to travel to Syria and help build an Islamic State seemed attractive to them. They wanted to belong.

Belonging. Belonging is what the Aarhus policemen decided to use as a tactic to solve this problem. Instead of warning young people that they would get in trouble if they went to Syria, Hanna Rosin reports that:

They made it clear to citizens of Denmark who had traveled to Syria that they were welcome to come home, and that when they did, they would receive help with going back to school, finding an apartment, meeting with a psychiatrist or a mentor, or whatever they needed to fully integrate back into society.

Instead of punishing radicalization, the police officers tried to fight the roots of radicalization. They apologized to young people that had been arrested on bogus charges. They followed up with these young people and found them mentors, jobs, health care. Instead of treating them as lost causes, they treated them as people who wanted to be found.

Since 2012, 34 young people have left Aarhus for Syria. Six were killed and ten are still there. 18 have come home and met with these police officers, as have more than 300 other radicalized youth from Aarhus. Since the program started very few young people have left Aarhus. Last year, it was only one person. The engagement is working. One young man said that while he always felt like an outsider in Denmark, now he feels Danish.

In the years since 9/11 our country has gotten more and more polarized. Public discourse has almost entirely broken down. But these images of God searching out the lost give us hope. If God can look for us no matter how broken we are, if we can fully feel the joy of that kind of love and forgiveness, perhaps we can reach out to those around us in love. Rather than judging those different from us, perhaps we can seek them out, too, remind ourselves that their difference does not mean they are cut off from God’s love that flows through us.

The God we worship is a God who seeks the lost and then gathers them into community. As members of Christ’s body, we are invited into this gathering, both as the invited and the inviters. The police in Aarhus give us a great example of how that might look. Instead of cutting off troubled young people, they invited them back into their communities and made sure they had deep connections. I guarantee you, their experience was not easy. But it was important to preserving their community, and so they did it.

Today we begin/began Christian Formation, and I can’t stress how important this is for you and for your families. Christian Formation is not just about educating ourselves and our children about God. Christian Formation is an opportunity for us to connect to one another and to God. It is a change to be brought into community, and to give yourself the bonds of connection that will see you through hard times. One of our college students told his parent that he’s not sure what he believes about God, but he knows that the people of St. Paul’s love him. He knows that because he was an active participant in our life together. He knows that because he showed up and was willing to be gathered in. We hope that sense of church as a place of love will continue with him his whole life and ultimately draw him to God. We hope that every child who grows up in St. Paul’s has that same sense. We hope each adult who enters our doors feels that love.

But your clergy and staff cannot do it alone. We need you. We need your presence. We need your leadership. We are so grateful every time someone volunteers to chaperone or teach or plan a reception because each of those encounters creates another bond, another chance for people to feel connected.

If you are new to St. Paul’s, we invite you to join us in the courtyard this afternoon at 4:00. We want to form those bonds with you, too. And September 25th and October 23rd, Eric will be leading a Welcome Class including a tour of the church at the 9:30 hour. It can be hard to enter a new church. People are often embarrassed to reach out to a new person in case that person is not new! But we are committed to helping you find ways to connect, both to people and to God.

God wants every single one of us as part of his community. He wants us to be gathered in, together. He wants each of us to know him deeply. And he will keep looking for us until we do.

Thanks be to God.

Proper 16, Year C, 2016

I am bad at watching the Olympics. I was at work during most of the good gymnastics stuff, and kept forgetting to watch the swimming at night. Finally, my husband and I caught the men’s 100 meter butterfly. The camera was on the stands and my husband said, “Oh, there is Michael Phelps’ baby!” Now, I may not keep track of sports, but I’m usually on top of celebrity gossip, but I had NO idea Phelps had a child. My husband looked at me and said, “Yep, he has a baby and he found Jesus.”

Well, that led to some googling. An article in Christianity Today reports that two years ago September, Phelps was struggling with severe depression and contemplating suicide after his second arrest for DUI in ten years. Ray Lewis, a friend of his, gave him a copy of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, and in reading it, he came to understand that God loved him and had a purpose for him. He used the resources in the book to reconcile with his father and do some internal work. Two years later he is engaged, has a baby, and a new handful of Olympic medals.

Phelps’ story is a powerful story of healing and it is no wonder that Christian websites are so eager to share this story of redemption of such an inspiring and gifted athlete.

But these kinds of healing stories lead to questions, don’t they? Why hasn’t God intervened in the life of my loved one with depression? Where do I fit into God’s story if I haven’t experienced miraculous healing from my medical issues?

Our healing story from the 13th chapter of the Gospel of Luke can help us with some of these questions.

Once again, this is a story only in the Gospel of Luke. And unlike some of the Gospel of Luke that focuses on God’s story being expanded to gentiles, this story is in an entirely Jewish context. Jesus is in the synagogue teaching on the Sabbath when he sees a woman bent over with some condition that has plagued her for 18 years. Like the Widow of Nain, about whom we heard earlier this summer, she does not ask for Jesus’ help. Jesus sees her, invites her over, and heals her.

Well, he lays his hands on her and announces she is healed. Our translation reads that she “stood up straight”, but the Greek reads, that she “was straightened up”. Jesus is making it clear that it is not he who is doing the healing, but God through him. In fact, to Jesus this is more than a healing. He describes this woman as being bound by a spirit, and God doing the work of unbinding her. Jesus is making it really clear that the same God who has been preached about in the synagogue for generations is the one who is doing the healing and the unbinding.

God sees this woman. God has the power to unbind her and chooses to do so. God restores her to herself and to her community. God returns her to a place of honor in her community. She is described as a Daughter of Abraham. This is a really unusual title, not used anywhere else in the New Testament. But you get a sense of her place as part of Israel, part of God’s beloved community.

Now, the leader of the synagogue is appalled that Jesus heals on the Sabbath, but Jesus uses the conflict as an opportunity to teach the crowd about the nature of God. God has compassion on people and God absolutely wants to heal us and for us to take care of each other on the Sabbath. God values people.

Immediately after this passage, Jesus starts talking about the Kingdom of God and how it is like a little mustard seed that takes root, or how a little yeast can leaven an entire loaf of bread. Jesus sees this woman’s experience as part of what it means to participate in the Kingdom of God.

Now, while we have a healing service once a month, I’m not aware of anyone in this congregation with the actual charism of miraculous healing. We just don’t live in a world where every person who needs physical healing gets that healing. But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t deeply care about that person, or that we shouldn’t deeply care about that person as members of the Kingdom of God. We may not do any miracles together, but we can still live out the principles that Jesus teaches us in this story.

First, Jesus shows us that God sees this woman for who she is. Do we see each other clearly? When we are in the world and meet a person with a disability do we see that person for all that person is, or do we just see their limitations? What would it mean to take the time to ask good questions, to get to know each other, to truly see one another?

Second, Jesus restores honor to the woman. He restores her place in the world. Now, we do not live in an honor-shame culture in quite the same way she did. We know that ill people, or people with disabilities are not deserving of shame. But illness and disability can still be isolating. How can we as a community stay connected to those who are ill? Make our space welcoming for those with disabilities? As members of the Kingdom of God, we are called to see each person as a beloved child of God, worthy to have a place in our community.

There is a lovely story on CNN this week about an engineer who works on accessibility for Facebook. He is blind, himself, and is working on ways to make Facebook and Messenger more accessible to those who are blind. At one point in the interview he says to the audience, “your life matters.” If Facebook engineers get it, how much more can the church! We should be on the forefront of welcoming those with chronic illnesses and disabilities into our communities.

Third, God wants to unbind each of us from whatever holds us back from being the person God designed us to be. What binds you? Unresolved trauma from your past? A conflict with someone? Your fear? The life of faith is a life that is going to involve facing the hard stuff and working through it with God’s help. While God may not give miraculous healings to every person, God can give us the courage we need to go to therapy, to get help for our addictions, to work on reconciliation with difficult people.

We aren’t all going to have a dramatic transformational experience like Michael Phelps. We are definitely not all going to win dozens of Olympic Gold medals. Well, maybe if I start working out every day. . . But God sees each of us. He knows who we are, behind all of our defense mechanisms, beyond all of our surface accomplishments or weaknesses. He knows the person we are deep in our core, and he loves that person.

And we get to be part of a Kingdom in which it is our job to spread that love around—to truly see and know our neighbors as children of the living God. We are invited into God’s healing and transforming work.

Thanks be to God.

Proper 14, Year C, 2016

The internet has ruined family arguments, hasn’t it?

The minute you get heated about which pitcher played the last inning of the 1996 World Series, or what year it was that the Hindenberg exploded, or which Kardashian it was who called out Taylor Swift, all you have to do is get online and do a quick Google search. Argument short circuited.

We have such a vast store of information at the tips of our fingers. We can go as far back in history as there are written records. We can learn every piece of trivia about our favorite show. We can learn about obscure plants and animals, ways of life in other countries, the mysteries of space.

We can even go a little bit into the future. We can see projections of who is most likely to win an election. We can watch videos of what might happen to the earth if all human life ceased to exist. We can upload our photos into programs to project what we will look like when we are older.

We have so much information now that when we run into a situation where we cannot research an answer, we feel flummoxed! How long will my company survive? When will I meet the love of my life? How sick is my disease going to make me?

When we bump up against these questions, we are reminded that the future is not predictable. Our knowledge has a stopping point.

The second generation Christians to whom the letter of the Hebrews was written were running up against their own limitations. They had never met Jesus, but they had heard about him from people who knew him. They believed the stories, but because of their belief, they were running into real trouble in the world. They were being jailed and harassed. The author of the letter to the Hebrews has to convince them that their belief in Jesus is legitimate and that they have a future.

And so we get one of the most beautiful passages of the Bible: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Faith in God is not the same thing as scientific belief. We can’t titrate anything and come to a clear answer about whether God exists. To relate to God is always an act of faith, facing the world with a clear hope about how the world is structured, without having concrete evidence to back up that hope.

While we don’t have evidence, we do have something even better: stories.

Before I became a Christian, when I was a teenager, I would read Madeleine L’Engle books and really want to inhabit her world. I did not have words to express why, but I loved her sense of wonder and the way people related to each other in her books. Years later, when I was a Christian and I learned she was Christian, it all made sense to me. The stories she created, while rarely mentioning God, were rooted in a Christian centered world. Her characters behaved the way they did because of their faith and it was that which attracted me.

Stories tell us things that are true, even if the stories are not historical. L’Engle’s books taught me that we are accepted even if we are awkward, that we all have important jobs to do in the world, and that love conquers fear and hate.

The author of Hebrews also uses stories to make his point. He tells the story of Abraham, to whom God promised descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, despite Abraham and Sarah’s old age. Abraham was given this promise. He did live to see Isaac’s birth, but he did not live to see his descendants grow to the millions. Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob after him, followed God without evidence. They trusted that God would fulfill his promises.

Well, according to the author of Hebrews they did. If you actually look back at the text in Genesis, you see Abraham doubting God at multiple points in his life. Every story of faith is more complicated than it might appear.

Second generation Christians needed to be reminded that they were part of God’s story. Like Abraham, they were faced with real doubts about God’s faithfulness. But through reminding them of the story of God’s faithfulness, the author hopes to encourage them and give them hope.

Today at the 10:30 service we will baptize Ellie Jane Simmers. When we pray over the water, we will tell ourselves the story of how God has used water throughout history. We will remind ourselves about how the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters during Creation, how the Spirit brought order out of chaos as land pushed through, separating the vast waters into oceans. We will remember the Israelites following Moses through the waters of the Red Sea, magically parted so they could escape slavery in Egypt. We will remind ourselves that at Jesus’ baptism the skies parted and God’s voice boomed down, blessing his Son. We will remind ourselves that in our baptisms we are buried with Jesus’ death and reborn into a new life of resurrection.

This story is so important. This story shapes our lives. If we are resurrection people than we know we can face hard things with courage. If we are resurrection people we know no one is their worst day. If we are resurrection people, then we know that there aren’t just second chances—there are third, fourth, seventy seventh chances to pick ourselves up and start over with God. If we are resurrection people, maybe we can even have faith that when everything looks bleak, God will show up and change the story.

Ellie Jane is becoming a member of a really radical community, a community based entirely on faith. And we have faith that God is already at work, claiming Ellie Jane and each of us as his own. We can’t Google whether or not God loves Ellie Jane, but we have faith that he does. And God loves Ellie Jane not because of her resume, because it is still pretty thin. God loves Ellie Jane because love is who he is. When we march babies down the aisle, I see the love in your eyes as you meet babies who now belong to you as members of the Christian family. I am always moved by how people will crane their necks, even leave their pews to catch a glimpse of our newest Christians.

Babies are cute, but I think we so enjoy greeting a newly baptized baby because there is joy in remembering that God loves us even more than we love these babies.

If you are in a place in your life where it is just too hard to believe in God’s love for you, may I suggest you tell yourself some stories? Maybe you need to read some stories from the Bible to remind yourself of the ways God has loved and challenged human beings. Maybe you need to tell yourself stories from your own past—times when God showed up in unexpected ways. When we are anxious about the future, telling ourselves stories is one of the best ways to shore up our faith.

And if you come to church once a week, you are guaranteed to hear stories about God, rather through Scripture or the sermon or the prayers at communion. We tell ourselves the stories of God’s faithfulness to us over and over again, so we can join those early Christians in faithfulness and hope.

Amen.

Proper 13, Year C, 2016

“But Jesus, who is my neighbor, specifically?”

Is there any more human question than that?

The particularly human who asks the question is a lawyer, who has been listening to Jesus. He understands that Jesus wants us to love God and our neighbor. He is on board.

But, like any lawyer worth his salt, he wants to be clear on the terms and conditions.

For most of us, the people in our neighborhoods look quite a lot like us. They often have the same skin color, same income bracket, sometimes they even have the exact same Subaru. So, we can imagine loving those neighbors. We can imagine watching the kids when a parent is sick, shoveling the walk for an older neighbor, borrowing or lending a cup of sugar.

But the lawyer has been observing Jesus. The lawyer has seen how Jesus flouts any propriety when it comes to his friends. Jesus surrounds himself with every kind of riff raff. So, perhaps the lawyer is a bit concerned that loving his neighbor is about to get uncomfortable.

Sure enough, as soon as the lawyer asks the question, Jesus tells a story.

And while the story of the Good Samaritan is one of the most familiar stories in all of scripture, it is also one of the most subversive.

You know it well: a man gets robbed and beaten up and thrown into a ditch. A priest, who one would hope would be most qualified to help a person in trouble, walks right by. A Levite, who should know God’s word backwards and forwards, also crosses the road. But, a Samaritan man, a man who would be been considered filth by the Levite and priest, has compassion on the man in the ditch and rescues him.

Jesus is saying that this outsider was more obedient to God than the religious hierarchy of the day.

If you want to follow Jesus, forget about obsessing over the rules, focus on loving God and loving your neighbor.

Now we get to the part of the sermon that I have re-written three times this week.

First, this was a sermon about how the Orlando shooting reminded us that there are communities who feel like they are not welcome in church sanctuaries, so they create their own. Then, this was a sermon grappling about the horrible bombings in Bangladesh, Turkey, Saudia Arabia and Iraq. Then it was a sermon lamenting the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castille and wondering what it means for us to be good neighbors to our African American brothers and sisters. And then, of course, eleven police officers were shot by a sniper in Dallas. Officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens all died in the attack.

What a month. What a week.

Our world feels heavy this week. So much senseless death. So much distrust and anger. Our country feels separated into neighborhoods and communities that never intersect.

So, where is Jesus’ good news to us?

Jesus’ good news to us is that we are not the priest. We are not the Levite. We are not even the good Samaritan. We are all the man in the ditch, utterly helpless, but about to be rescued.

God created us in his image, beautiful and creative and full of love. But, we fell into a ditch of our own making, by our selfishness and hatred. We ended up in this ditch of sin and pain, completely unable to help ourselves. So, God became a human being to reach an arm down and pull us out of the ditch. Jesus saved us from being captive to sin and death.

And now that Jesus has rescued us, and we can have a relationship with God, we still need the Holy Spirit to pull us out of our individual ditches. We each are in need of God’s intervention in our lives. None of us are perfect. There is a reason we say the confession every week. We need it! We need a chance to tell ourselves and God about the ways we have come short. We need to ask for help to be better. We need the Spirit’s help to become the creative, loving people God designed us to be.

We can be people of love. We can be peacemakers. We can be good neighbors, but we need the Holy Spirit’s help.

There are signs of hope out there for us to cling to, as we imagine with God what a world might look like if we lived into the true natures God has given us.

After the Pulse shooting, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld in Washington DC, announced that as soon as Shabbat was over, he and his congregation were going to a local gay bar. Can you imagine the expressions on his congregant’s faces? They did not go to protest or judge those inside. They went inside as an act of solidarity. They went inside as an act of love. They talked with their gay neighbors. They prayed together. They learned that they had many connections in common. They were not two separate groups of people, they were intertwined, just like all of us. The congregation left their sanctuary, and entered another. I guarantee you that the people in that bar never in a million years expected an Orthodox Jewish congregation to show up that night, but their visit became an act of love and grace. They were good neighbors.

In the midst of the shootings in Dallas, a mother pushing a stroller began to panic and a group of black lives matter protesters, white and black, male and female, surrounded her and her stroller until they got the baby to safety. They were good neighbors.

The police force in Dallas has been working really hard with their officers, doing de-escalating training and minimizing use of force, building up community engagement, trying to stop this cycle of unnecessary deaths. Before the sniper began shooting, you can find many photos of black lives matter activists and police offers, smiling, arm in arm. The police were protecting the activists, and the activists are still grateful. They were good neighbors.

This summer, our church book group read Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me. This book is a letter to Coates’ son, written after Michael Brown’s death. About a dozen of us talked about all the ways throughout American history that the people with power, white people, have tried to keep our African American neighbors at bay. Slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, housing segregation, school segregation, corrupt mortgage practices, mass incarceration: the list goes on and on. Being in a book group was such a small step, but for me at least reading the parts of our country’s history that were not in my school textbooks has been heart breaking and transformative. Hearing the stories of the various parishioners in the group was also incredibly powerful. We each have a connection with racism, whether in our family or in our own hearts. Confessing the ways our own families have benefited from slavery or its aftermath was an important step towards moving forward. My maternal grandmother was mentally ill, and it was the African American nanny, Laura, who gave my mother the stability and loving presence in her life she needed to grow up and be the amazing mom she was to me. Laura left her own children to care for my mother. I directly benefited from Laura’s sacrifice.

When Coates wrote this book, he had no idea it would become a best seller. Coates has been totally flummoxed by so many church groups reading the book. He is not a person of faith and he certainly had no expectation that thousands of book groups in churches across the country would be picking up his work. But he underestimates churches’ desire to do the holy work of confession, lament and reconciliation.

The book group left us with a desire to do something more. To read more, to engage more, to be better neighbors. We want to confront our own racism and work toward transformation. We are not sure what that looks like, but if you are interested be in touch with me of with our Director of Spirituality and Missions, Debbie Scott. The caveat is that I am about to be on vacation for a few weeks! If you email me and I don’t respond, I promise I will get back to you by early August.

We are created and redeemed by a God of infinite love. He desires us to love one another and he will give us what we need to make it happen. Thanks be to God.

Proper 8, Year C, 2016

The Apostle Paul is angry, you guys. Extremely angry.

Paul has worked hard to teach the Galatians the Gospel, and some rival group has come in and told the Galatians that to be Christian, they must obey the Jewish law, including circumcision.

Paul is so mad that in Galatians 5:12, he writes, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” So, be careful how you talk about circumcision around the Apostle Paul, okay?

Paul passionately wants the Galatians to experience the freedom that comes from faith in Christ. He is furious that anyone would undermine the freedom that comes in Christ. For Paul, freedom means no longer having to follow all the particulars of Jewish law. Freedom means that Jesus has done all the work of salvation for us, so following the law is no longer a requirement.

This is wonderful, amazing news, especially if you were a gentile man looking to become a Christian! Dropping the requirement for circumcision makes conversion MUCH MORE ATTRACTIVE.

Freedom from the law sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Not having to check to see if what we eat is kosher. Not having to carefully ritually clean your house if it gets mildew. Not having to leave the community when it is your time of the month? Not having to do any ritual sacrifice of your flock?

Not being bound to the law sounds almost exhilarating! We are free! We can do what we want! But before we get to far ahead of ourselves, Paul writes:

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

We are freed from the law, but our faith in Christ binds us not just to Christ, but also to one another. We are given freedom, not to do whatever we want, but so that we can love each other more deeply. We are called to be slaves to each other, to put others before ourselves.

And just in case we think we can love each other without sacrificing too much, Paul lays out what this kind of freedom prohibits: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”

What I love about Paul is he writes this FOUR VERSES after he has just wished castration on a group of people. I think Paul is preaching to himself here as much as he is preaching to the Galatians! He knows how tempted we are by our base instincts. For generations the law has been a construct to protect us from these desires and impulses, but now we are free from the law, so what keeps us from just devolving into an orgy of our own desires?

When I first joined the Episcopal Church I was coming from a more conservative evangelical tradition, which put a lot of emphasis on rules. I was a member of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship during college and it was very clear that we were not supposed to drink alcohol. Our bodies were a temple to the Lord, and alcohol would defile that temple.

When I first started attending St. James’ Episcopal Church in Richmond, I went to one of their Wednesday night dinners. You guys, there was WINE there. I about fell over. I was entering a church that was full of love and people serving God, but the strict religious imperative against alcohol was not there. It was very exciting.

Eventually, I joined the choir at St. James’. The choir met immediately after these Wednesday night dinners and let’s just say some of the choir enjoyed the wine at dinner a little more than was helpful. Our choir master finally had enough of giggling and lack of focus and gave us stern instructions to limit our drinking at dinner. There was no religious rule not to drink wine, but there was a community reason not to drink wine—being tipsy does not help a person stay on pitch. The wine was getting in the way of us worshiping God together. When members of the choir sacrificed a glass of wine for the good of the choir, rehearsals went much more smoothly and we were much better prepared for Sunday morning worship.

In our case, Paul was right that one of the things on his list—drunkenness–was getting in the way of our community life. If the altos had been super jealous of the sopranos, that would have been problematic, too. Dissension in the choir would have impacted our worship, as well. Paul’s list of prohibitions are a good guide to indicate when we are getting off the rails when it comes to loving our neighbor.

Paul gives us a list of qualities to look for as signs that we are on the right track: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. He describes these as Fruits of the Spirit, because we only develop these when the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, making us more like the Jesus we follow. We’ll never be perfect, but the Holy Spirit is at work transforming us into people who actually do love others and who exhibit the Fruits of the Spirit.

Whenever we baptize a child, I walk that child up and down the aisles here at church and I tell that child that you belong to him and he belongs to you. In baptism we become part of a community. And in Christian community we lift up the common good over and above our own individual freedoms. We look out for each other. We take care of each other.

Our country’s identity is so rooted in individual freedoms that it can feel really strange, and even wrong, to build a community rooted in interdependence and sacrifice, yet God calls us to serve one another and to put each other’s wellbeing above our own. We belong to each other. For this really to work, we also need to be vulnerable and honest with each other. While our instincts tell us we want to be independent, God has designed us as interdependent people. We are supposed to help each other, and we are supposed to ask for help when we need it.

We’ll end on a few questions and moments of reflection. I will not ask who you would hope would castrate themselves. I’ll leave that for your personal prayer time.

What fruit of the Spirit do you hope God will grow in you?

What might God be asking you to give up for the good of the community?

What do you need from someone else in the community but are afraid to ask?

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Proper 5, Year C, 2006

 

Last week we heard about the faith of a Centurion. The Centurion, a soldier who was part of the Empire that ruled over the Jewish people, had such faith in Jesus that he sent out his friends to ask Jesus to heal his slave from afar. He had faith that Jesus did not even need to come to his house, but could heal the slave just by thinking about the slave.

The centurion’s faith is the faith of a confident guy. His is the faith of a CEO who is used to people following his orders. He sees in Jesus another man in command, someone able to do God’s work with power.

After healing the centurion’s slave, Jesus and the crowd that is following him walk toward a town called Nain. As he moves toward the city gates, Jesus sees a funeral procession. The members of the procession are not looking for Jesus, they just happen to be moving the body of the dead man outside of the city gates so he can be buried. This man has just died—in Jewish custom a body had to be buried within 24 hours—so the grief of the crowd is fresh.

No one is grieving more than the man’s mother. This man is her only son. Not only that, but this woman is widowed. With the death of her son, she has lost her family. Her world is forever changed. She is devastated.

She does not ask for Jesus’ help. She may have never even heard of Jesus. Her mind is fully absorbed in the moment.

Jesus, passing by the procession cannot keep walking. He is moved by compassion to help her.

Now, the author of the Gospel of Mark describes Jesus as feeling compassion pretty regularly. But Luke strips that phrase out of the stories he borrows from Mark. But here, in this story, a story that only appears in the Gospel of Luke, Luke chooses to describe Jesus having compassion. He wants us to understand the power of the emotional Jesus experiences seeing this woman’s grief. It literally moves him. He cannot help but to act.

This story does not stand in isolation. You may have noticed all the similarities between Jesus’ resurrection of this man, and Elijah’s resurrection of the widow’s son in 1st Kings. These stories are speaking to each other, and their conversation speaks to us.

Elijah prayed to God to resurrect the widow’s son. He threw himself on the son’s body. And God resurrected the son. Jesus needs to do none of that. He simply touches the stretcher the young man is lying on and tells him to rise. He is not asking God to bring the boy to life. He, being God, commands the boy to live.

Jesus, has all the power of God. And he uses this power of healing and of life, not just for confident Centurions, but for grieving women who don’t even know that asking Jesus for help is an option.

We so often think about healing stories as being about the faith of the recipient, but healing stories are about the power and the compassion of God. Jesus chooses to resurrect the widow’s son not because he has earned it or his mother has earned it, but because it is in the nature of God to feel compassion for human beings. It is in the nature of God to transform suffering into healing and death into life.

He restores the young man to life and restores the widow to the life she knew. He gives her back some of what has been taken away from her, even though she is completely passive. She doesn’t speak once in the story. She doesn’t move toward her son after he is resurrected. Jesus does everything for her in this story, even handing her son to her after he is resurrected.

We cannot all be the Centurion. Most of us don’t walk around in complete confidence of our authority and God’s authority. Whether it is a crisis in our own family, or a hurricane, or a political season, we often look around in shock and ask ourselves, “What is happening?” We are often too overwhelmed to act, or even to know how to ask God for help.

And yet, the God of compassion who was moved to restore sons to their mothers through Elijah and Jesus, moves towards all of us in compassion as well.

Jesus restores the life of one man in this story, but through his death and resurrection he restores the lives of all humanity. All the people we have mourned, all the people we will mourn, they will all be restored to us. New life will be breathed into each of us after we die. We will all be restored to God and to one another.

If we look for them, we can find moments of God breaking into our world and bringing little resurrections in the here and now. These little resurrections help us hold onto our faith as we await the great Resurrection.

Charlie has a book out from the library right now called Maybe Something Beautiful. It’s a whimsical story about a little girl who lives in a drab city, who hangs a picture on a wall and then meets a muralist. She and he begin to add color to the walls of the drab city and soon the whole neighborhood is painting with them. At the end of the book, you find out that this is a true story, and the illustrator is the muralist who helped create the Urban Art Trail in San Diego. The art helped heal and bring life to a city that needed it. A small resurrection.

These small resurrections can take many forms, the first laugh after a period of grief. A new friend after a difficult move. The first job when you are trying to start over.

The first time you hold hands after a difficult patch in a relationship.

Small resurrections are not spectacular. They are nothing to tweet about. But they are life sustaining. They remind us that there, somewhere, is order to the universe. They remind us that we are loved. They remind us that there is a big resurrection waiting for us.

Whether we are heroes of faith, or barely faithful, Jesus’ love and resurrection are for us. Whether we are confident or overwhelmed by life, Jesus’ love and resurrection are for us.

We follow a God whose is moved by our suffering, who longs not only to comfort us, but to transform our story. We follow a God who does this, not because we deserve it or even want it, but because it is in his nature.

May you be blessed this week by small resurrections that remind you of the great one waiting for you.

Amen.

Trinity Sunday, Year C, 2016

In the mid-2000s, one of the most popular characters on Saturday Night Live was Debbie Downer. Rachel Dratch played a dour woman who could turn any occasion into a chance to talk about something devastating. About to order a steak at a family reunion? Debbie will tell you all about Mad Cow Disease. Excited because Tigger hugged you at Disney? Debbie will remind you about how a tiger attacked Roy of Siegfied and Roy. After every one of these tidbits, the camera zoomed into Debbie’s face and a sad trombone noise played. “Wah, waaaah”.

Let me tell you, Debbie is on to something!

There is a lot of suffering in the world. We live in this in-between time. Jesus has come and lived among us and done the work of our salvation, but we are still waiting for the Kingdom of God to come to full fruition. We are still waiting, longing for a world without sin, a world without suffering.

The biggest questions we get as clergy are around questions of suffering. And so, before we get to Paul’s perspective in Romans 5, I want to talk a bit about suffering in general.

Today we’ll be talking about three broad categories of suffering, although I’m sure if we put our heads together we could come up with more! For today’s purposes we’ll talk about: Suffering because we are part of an imperfect creation, suffering because of human sin, and suffering because of institutional evil.

First, we suffer because we are part of a creation that is not perfect. Our bodies have millions of cells that all have to work perfectly together for us to be healthy. And even if we are healthy our entire life, eventually the mechanical parts of our body just wear out. We are finite. The website Humans of New York has been doing a series about childhood cancer at Sloane Kettering. One of the doctors interviewed said:

Twelve thousand kids per year get cancer in the United States. But the extraordinary thing isn’t that cancer happens. The extraordinary thing is that cancer doesn’t happen more often. Every human life begins with a single cell. Trillions of cells will form from that single cell. During this process, the DNA will rearrange itself hundreds of times to form all different types of cells: muscle, nerve, bone, blood, connective tissue. If you look at these cells under a microscope, each one has special properties. They all have codes that tell them exactly what to do and exactly when to stop doing it. The complexity of this is extraordinary. There are numerous fail-safes at every level to prevent mistakes. How is it possible that it ever works correctly? There are trillions of chances for something to go wrong. God, it’s unbelievable. The longer I study cancer, the more I’m in awe of the healthy child.

Each of us will end up suffering because we are physically or mentally ill, or because someone we love dies, just as a consequence of being a created human being in a creation that is imperfect. We don’t think a tree has disappointed God if it gets Dutch Elm Disease. In the same way, getting cancer or being depressed does not mean you have failed God somehow, it is just part of being a human being.

Second, we can suffer because of human sin. This one is pretty obvious. We suffer when our partner commits adultery. We suffer if we are hit by a drunk driver. We suffer when someone is unkind to us. But our own sin can make us suffer, too. St. Paul was deeply familiar with this phenomenon. In Romans 7 he writes,

For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

We want to go to the gym, but sloth overtakes us. We want to eat well, but greed or anxiety entices us to eat too much. We mean to be kind, but we lash out defensively. We intend to be faithful, but the lure of the old high school flame is powerful. That kind of inner disconnect can cause enormous suffering. We find ourselves making choices that harm us and the people around us, but we cannot seem to stop. I’m telling you, Debbie Downer. Wah Waaaaah.

Finally, institutional evil, or oppression. Whether intentional or unintentional, societies can inflict suffering on communities, often the poor. Think of the effects of uranium mining on the townships of Johannesburg. Think of the legacy of housing discrimination in this country. Think of those factory workers in the third world who work in abominable conditions to make clothes for westerners.

In the June issue of The Atlantic, Paul Tough writes about what happens to children who are raised in systemic poverty. He writes,

Over the past decade, neuroscientists have demonstrated with increasing clarity how severe and chronic stress in childhood—what doctors sometimes call toxic stress—leads to physiological and neurological adaptations in children that affect the way their minds and bodies develop and, significantly, the way they function in school.

These children suffer from the consequences of broken creation, and because of human sin, but also by this larger more complicated system that exists around them and makes it difficult for anyone in their community to affect change.

So, this is all fairly depressing. Why, then does the Apostle Paul tell us to rejoice in our suffering? Does he want people just to stay where they are and suck it up? Does he see suffering as God’s discipline for us? Is God an uptight nun, ready with the ruler to smack us when we get too out of hand?

No, Paul says we can rejoice in our suffering because of what God has already done for us and what God is doing for us.

Through Jesus Christ, God has blessed the human experience, including suffering. Rather than human suffering being something separate from God, Jesus makes human suffering into something that God experiences. Jesus experienced betrayal and pain and death. His father experienced the suffering of watching his Son die. Rather than protecting himself from suffering, God chooses to fully enter into our life experience and join us. When we suffer, God is alongside us.

God even forgives us for the suffering that we cause. While we may never be able to make good choices, never be able to live a perfectly healthy and holy life, God chooses to eliminate any distance between Godself and us. Through Jesus’ resurrection, God forgives us our sins and sends the Holy Spirit to pour love into our hearts.

It is this love of the Holy Spirit that transforms our suffering. In God’s economy, nothing is wasted.

Paul is addressing a community likely experiencing persecution for being Christian, so he is speaking to a particular kind of suffering. In chapters 5-8 of Romans, Paul is explaining the cosmic power of God who has changed the course of history and of the human position in the universe. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has once and for all defeated the powers of death and in. In Chapter 8 we get the wonderful speech about how absolutely nothing can separate human beings from the love of God.

Paul is not lecturing the community in Rome about having a stiff upper lip. He is inviting them to live into their new identity as people who have absolutely nothing that separates them from God. Not even their worst sufferings can separate them from God. Now, with the power of the Holy Spirit, those sufferings can actually be transformed into experiences that can shape their character and perspective.

Suffering does not get transformed because we have a stiff upper lip or because we try really hard to have a good perspective. Just like our salvation, suffering gets transformed because God chooses to do it. The Holy Spirit is the actor here, not us. When you are suffering, it is not your job to try to grow your character from the experience. There is no pressure for you to make something good out of something terrible. That is the Holy Spirit’s job.

Many, many people at Sloane Kettering shared their stories of suffering with Humans of New York. We heard from parents and their children who survived cancer and parents of children who did not. Some entries were almost unreadable because the pain of their subjects was so palpable.   But by sharing their stories, Humans of New York raised $3.4 million dollars from its readers to donate toward cancer research to help find cures for children’s cancer. Those who suffered helped create hope, just by sharing their stories, even if they were feeling hopeless. The Holy Spirit is mysterious and does not always show up in the ways we hope it will. The Holy Spirit’s job is not to protect us from pain, as much as we would like it to. But the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are constantly at work in our lives, shaping us into the people they have created us to be. They will not abandon us. Thanks be to God.

Amen.